Here’s some good news for the Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan has reopened its frontier with Kyrgyzstan, 18 months after unilaterally screwing it shut. Tashkent closed the border during the bloody ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, dramatically wounding trade in southern Kyrgyzstan.
One study last winter found commerce in the region’s largest market, Kara-Suu, had fallen by 75 percent, encouraging higher food prices and smuggling.
The Dostuk (“Friendship”) border post between Osh and Andijan reopened early on October 26, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency reported. There is no word yet whether other posts along the 1100-kilometer frontier will open.
But why now, four days before Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, when Bishkek is bracing for more political or ethnic violence? Wasn’t Tashkent’s original logic to keep Kyrgyzstan’s messy politics contained?
A few possibilities come to mind:
For one thing, the reopening, decided on in Tashkent, looks like a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the leading candidate in the October 30 poll. Opening the border would revive commerce, which could add a notch to the premier’s belt. Moreover, though the rights of minority ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan may not be the top priority on Uzbekistan’s foreign-policy list, Tashkent has shown concern about the issue, and Atambayev stands apart from the two other leading candidates as less of a nationalist hothead. (Besides, if, heaven forbid, the election should trigger a new round of interethnic strife, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks in the south would have somewhere to run.)
Something must be going right in the rickety relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow.
In late March, Moscow increased fuel export duties on petroleum products destined for Tajikistan, the poorest country to emerge from the former Soviet Union. This blog speculated on possible causes: Could it have been pressure to allow Russian troops to reassume control over the Tajiks’ wide-open border with Afghanistan, which Moscow says is a conduit for millions of dollars of heroin blighting Russian youth? Or something thornier, such as whether Moscow should pay to station its troops on Tajik soil?
Certainly, Russian primo Vladimir Putin isn’t the kind of leader who responds to irritations with charity. In May, prices for gasoline in Tajikistan jumped 44 percent thanks to his tariffs. But in a sudden about-face, the all-powerful Putin has signed a decree actually lowering – slightly, immediately, even retroactively – those fuel duties. Light crude prices will decrease by a modest 3.7 percent as of July 1, CA-News reported on July 5.
Putin is no doubt concerned by what the US Embassy, in a WikiLeaked cable, described last year as a “poorly trained, poorly paid, underequipped and often under-fed” Tajik border force that allows 40 tons of opiates to enter Russia each year.
Russian news agency Interfax is reporting that Russia is pressing Tajikistan to allow its troops to resume border defense duties in an effort to stem the flow of drugs coming from Afghanistan.
The border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is long and hard to guard. In some sections, all that separates the two countries in narrow high-walled gullies is a shallow, unfenced and fast-moving river. It is often possible to drive for hours on the barely paved road running alongside the border before coming across any signs of a military presence.
Not surprising, therefore, that Moscow should be applying relentless pressure to be enabled to supplement Tajikistan's tightly stretched frontier forces. But, as one unnamed Tajik source tells Interfax: "Very complex negotiations are under way; Russia wants to return to this geopolitically important southern border of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], but Tajikistan is still cool to the idea."
Reuters cites anonymous security sources and analysts saying Russia may seek to send up to 3,000 border guards to Tajikistan.
Russian border troops left Tajikistan in 2005 in a development that seemed to mark yet another stage of Moscow's gradual strategic withdrawal from the region. But with the drug problem in Russia showing no sign of abating, the emphasis has now moved from broad issues of strategy to more pragmatic areas.
International concern over what’s passing through Tajikistan’s sieve-like borders continues to grow: drugs? guns? Islamic militants? This week, several foreign officials rushed to Dushanbe to sound the alarm, anticipating the dreaded NATO drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan. But while the Americans, the Russians and even the Europeans simultaneously bemoaned the challenges of keeping illicit goods and bad people from crossing into ex-Soviet Central Asia, their conspicuous lack of joint meetings suggested that cooperation -- official statements notwithstanding -- is not a priority.
Moscow, which patrolled Tajikistan’s 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan from tsarist times until 2005, is signaling it would like to lead an international coalition there – but without the West’s help, thank you very much. At a conference in Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, said CSTO members should tackle the threat together “because problems which emerge on this border then echo on the territory of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other CSTO member states," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.
NATO, he suggested, should finish what it started in Afghanistan and keep the situation there from poisoning neighboring countries.
Those concerned about the danger of drugs and militants in Central Asia know that all roads lead to -- or through – Tajikistan, the impoverished failing state on Afghanistan’s northern border. In recent weeks, apprehensions about the country’s sieve-like borders have been stirred up in Moscow and Washington alike. Can the two find enough mutual ground to cooperate on border security in the region, or will mistrust keep them at odds?
In Russia, the latest alarm bell sounded two days ago, when Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said the Tajiks are not keeping Afghan drugs out of Central Asia -- and, by extension, out of Russia -- and should either hand control of the Afghan border back to Moscow, or suffer the consequences.
“Either we go back there and there is control of the situation, or it is time for us to introduce a visa regime with Tajikistan,” the Avesta.tj news service reports Bagdasarov as saying. (By some estimates, as many as a million Tajiks work, legally and illegally, in Russia. Moscow raises the specter of a visa requirement from time to time, usually when it is pressuring Dushanbe for some concession.)
Bagdasarov’s insistence that Russia take more responsibility for the porous, 1,300-kilometer border is not surprising. He’s said as much before. But chatter in favor of a return of Russian troops (who guarded the border from tsarist times until 2005) is growing louder. The fashionable position in Moscow seems to be that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the sick men of Central Asia, cannot provide adequate security.
By shutting its border with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan has imposed a “catastrophic” de facto embargo, stimulating a shadow economy in the beleaguered Central Asian state, say researchers at a Bishkek-based think tank.
The Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI) found a 75 percent drop in trade at southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest market since Tashkent unilaterally closed the border following the upheaval that unseated the Kyrgyz president last April.
The closure has also pushed up food prices -- which have risen more in Kyrgyzstan this year than anywhere else according to the World Bank -- since Uzbekistan traditionally was a major supplier of fruits and vegetables to Kyrgyzstan.
But the 1100-kilometer border is open for smuggling, entrenching corruption as the arbiter of economic activity. In interviews with 109 illegal smugglers, the researchers found that many of them ferry cheap Chinese consumer goods to Uzbekistan and fruits and vegetables back to Kyrgyzstan, paying border officials bribes along the way. (At the prices they found, it’s not a stretch to imagine drugs, weapons and even militants are also getting across.)
Along the entire […] border there are illegal paths by which goods transit from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan and vice versa. At the moment, traders are forced to pay bribes to border guards along paths that bypass the border. Payment to the border guards is 200 som [$4] for every person crossing and 300 som [$6] for goods weighing up to 80 kg. […]
Under Tashkent’s logic, should Bukhara return to Tajikistan?
Indicating deteriorating relations between the oft bickering neighbors, Tashkent has toughened its jarring rhetoric towards Bishkek.
First came warnings of a potential “slaughter on the border” if Kyrgyzstan’s provisional President Roza Otunbayeva failed to rein in her security forces. Now a state-controlled website is questioning Kyrgyzstan’s claims to the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, scenes of ethnic violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in June. One would think the discussion sets an awkward precedent given how Moscow issued Tajik-speaking Samarkand and Bukhara to Soviet Uzbekistan in the early years of the Soviet Union.
The press-uz.info website, which Tashkent insiders believe is controlled by President Islam Karimov’s Security Council, has concluded that residents of Osh and Jalal-Abad would have avoided the recent violence had the cities remained part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (Uzbek SSR).
Press-uz.info claims that this decision gave Bishkek the population it needed to form a republic (the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic) in 1936 and thus receive equal representation, in theory, with the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1991, the Kyrgyz SSR became independent Kyrgyzstan.
However, the cities were never part of the Uzbek SSR, but all of the Ferghana Valley was once part of the Tsar's Turkestan.
Crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan has never been so difficult.
After April’s uprising in Kyrgyzstan, Astana closed the border for a month. But now, since the birth of a new custom’s union between Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, what used to be a simple crossing can take hours. Astana has constructed a concertina wire barricade near populated parts of Kyrgyzstan and reportedly plans to reduce the number of crossing points from 12 to five. Currently only three are open.
Moreover, stricter residency rules in Kazakhstan mean that foreigners can now stay only five days, as opposed to 90, without registering. The carousel of Kyrgyz workers is spinning faster, as they are forced to cross more often to beat the rules.
Of course, in true Central Asian style, these obstacles have sparked a surge in smuggling and prompted even the most upright citizens to seek ways around what has long been a relatively open frontier.
A woman we will call Anara is a Kyrgyz doctor with legal residency in Kazakhstan. She lives and works in Kazakh town of Chu. Attempting to get a Kazakh passport, she surrendered all her Kyrgyz documents to Kazakh authorities.
Uzbek diplomats in Dushanbe are doing their part to fuel an international row over the “so-called delays” of freight transiting Uzbekistan for Tajikistan. Tashkent says it is doing everything possible to allow goods bound for Tajikistan to pass through the country’s territory without hindrance. Tajiks, however, from blighted businessmen to angry officials, sharply disagree.
Since January, hundreds of wagons have been delayed on the Uzbek side of the border, often held for weeks or more. Independent observers say that Tashkent is punishing Dushanbe for trying to build a large hydropower dam upstream, Rogun. The Uzbeks say this is absurd.
“Despite measures being taken by [the Uzbek state rail company] on the timely passage of train cars with transit freight bound for Tajikistan, Tajik officials and some of the country’s media outlets are continuing to spread ungrounded statements and false accusations against Uzbekistan about the so-called delays of this freight,” the Uzbek embassy in Dushanbe said in a statement cited by uzdaily.uz on August 11.
Moreover, the transit of Tajik freight has increased a whopping 2.7 percent this year, according to the sycophantic uzdaily report.
Uzdaily's blame-shifting, brown-nosing continues: The “ungrounded statements and accusations by representatives of Tajikistan against Uzbekistan undermine the foundation of good-neighborly and partner relations between the two countries and does not help strengthen mutual trust between the sides.”
Some have speculated that construction of the fence was a condition of membership in the new Customs Union among Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
In an episode eerily similar to the regular violence along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, a shoot-out near a Kazakh-Kyrgyz frontier post left two dead earlier this week. The Kyrgyz shepherds were attempting to illegally export horses, Kazakh border officials said.